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date: 09 July 2020

Summary and Keywords

Sara Baartman (also known as Saartje, Saartjie, or Sarah), a South African woman, was widely known on stage in England and France in the early 19th century, and subsequently internationally since then, as the “Hottentot Venus,” the Western racist fiction of the primitive, sexualized, black woman. Until the 21st century, scholars paradoxically paid more attention to the fiction than the actual person. Further research showed that Baartman was born on the colonial frontier in the 1770s and lived in Cape Town in conditions similar to urban slavery from the 1790s through 1810, when she was taken to London. There and later in the English countryside and in Ireland, she was displayed on stage. In 1814, she was sold to an animal trainer in Paris who forced her to display herself to restaurant patrons and who possibly also forced her into prostitution. George Cuvier, the founder of Comparative Anatomy, interviewed her and, after her death in December 1815, performed an autopsy, not to discover the cause of death but to see if her body, literally, was the connection between humankind and animals. The Museum of Man in Paris displayed a nude plaster cast of Baartman’s body until the 1970s. Following the coming of democracy to South Africa, activists petitioned to bring Baartman’s remains home, and they were buried on South African National Women’s Day, August 1, 2002, as part of a nationally televised ceremony. Her burial site is in Hankey, Eastern Cape.

Keywords: Sara (Saartjie) Baartman, Hottentot Venus, racial science, repatriation, human remains

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